Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas pic
Greek-Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas

Writing historical fiction has many pitfalls, writers and writing guides will tell you, the most dangerous is, undoubtedly language. To the people of the eastern Mediterranean in the first and second century CE there were several languages: Latin for the military administration of the Roman invaders, Hebrew for schools and prayers, Greek for civil administration, and Aramaic for the person in the street, plus local languages and dialects. Rendering all this into English for readers in the twenty first century needs decisions. Traditionally, using modern expressions of the potential readers has been considered wrong; although Hilary Mantel took no heed of that with Wolf Hall where the dialogue is decidedly modern.

Tsiolkas too has made decisions. He uses the word ‘sex’ to refer to genitalia and ‘rutting’ to refer to sex; he notes what language characters use, Greek, Syrian, Latin etc.; his chosen lexicon contains many words of the extreme: death, light, darkness, heavens, honour, hades, blood, hate, etc.; and old words and phrases, like ‘beloved’, ‘betrothed’,  ‘begetting’, ‘we have much to be thankful for’, ‘he is wondrous’; no negative contractions; and violence, lots of violence. Life is cheap, monstrous, and death – as well as life – is slow, bloody, and full of pain; and it is dotted with modern expletives, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’. There is no smiling while reading this book.

Generally his decisions work. Any frowns I found myself making over his use of language were minor and, as readers must, I went with him and tried to give in to his choices. However, as the story progressed I found this more and more difficult; phrases as ‘… he is singing the light’ , ‘he betrays the light’,’…the God is rapturous …’, ‘I am blinded in white flame’, ‘he has to bring him towards the light,’ ‘to never again be in light.’ So many uses of this word ‘light’ that such phrases, as they peppered the pages more and more in the later stages of the work, became meaningless. The language reminded me of second-rate TV evangelists who use generalisations and ambiguity to hide uncertainly, to impress, not to inform. I lost trust in the writer; I thought Tsiolkas himself did not know what he meant. And the editors must take some responsibility for this.

It is the story of the adult Paul, St. Paul, the Paul who has been credited with writing a large chunk of the New Testament, also known in Hebrew as Saul. Tsiolkas doesn’t tell the tale linearly, but in seven sections, each one concentrating on characters in Paul’s life, some in the 1st person, some in the 3rd: a young mother, Lydia, from Antioch whom he converts; his jailer, the crippled soldier, Vrasas, in Rome; his disciple Timothy. But also around Paul himself: his early persecution of Christians; his blindness, his imprisonment, his death?  jumping decades back and forth between 35, and 87 CE twenty three years after his death.

As a piece of imaginative writing it is astounding in its detail but the writer’s attempt to build the tale’s veracity for a modern readership failed for this reader. I was outside of the story, watching it, knowing it was just a story with no emotional involvement. He made too many little decisions but not enough big ones. Too many times I was told how a character feels, never shown. Tsiolkas lost me, disappointed me, but I read it, well, skimmed it, through to the end.

You can buy the Kindle, and other editions, here.

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas: a short story collection.

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Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.

The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.

“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.”                   Sydney Morning Herald

Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.

When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.

I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.

Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that.   There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.

A reviewer at The Guardian labeled Tsiolkas as “the master of the stain”.

The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.

Read these stories. You won’t forget them.

You can get the kindle edition here.